Posts Tagged ‘xiao long bao’

Din Tai Fong (XinYi Road branch) in Taipei - merchandised? Nah.

First, you spot the crowds on the sidewalk.  Then you spot the xiao long bao cartoon character.  This is Din Tai Fung.  Last week, as part of a 9-day trip eating my way through Taiwan, I visited the original Taipei location of what can only be called a xiao long bao empire.  The place is fabled among locals, tourists and food lovers around the world, it seems.  For background on Din Tai Fung and a sense of the adoration this place inspires, read this.  (Also, loosely related, but highly entertaining, is this October 2010 NYT Magazine article touching on food-crazed people and XLB).

the kitchen at Din Tai Fong

In any case, our party of eight arrived at Din Tai Fung for a weeknight dinner, and we were mildly alarmed by the number of people already spilling out of the restaurant (Din Tai Fung takes no bookings – ugh).  Luckily, this place isn’t written up in every guidebook and travel article for nothing.  These people have a system!  The ladies in headsets hand you a number, a menu and an order form so that while you’re waiting for a table, you can tick the boxes comprising your order.  When your number’s called, you hand in your order form, and seemingly by the time you’ve reached your table (the place is surprisingly large, though maze-like), dishes have started arriving. We were in and out in less than an hour.  Don’t even think about lingering.

While waiting for our table, I peeked into the kitchen, which is towards the front of the restaurant.  The room was oddly silent except for the hissing of steamers cooking what must be hundreds of thousands of xiao long bao a day.  There must be a high incidence of carpal tunnel syndrome among the cooks when you consider the number of delicate pleats that go into each xiao long bao.

XLB at Din Tai Fong - "regular" with just pork (190 NT) and pork with crab roe (330NT)

Onto the star attraction.  Deflated.  Seriously.  The skin is perfect, almost-translucent but strong.  The visual appearance isn’t bad (but it’s not great).  But here’s the failure:  the bottoms aren’t sagging with soup.  We ordered four baskets of different xiao long bao, and none of them were especially soupy.  I like my xiao long bao to be so full of soup that when you lever them gently into your soup spoon, you feel like a kid playing a type of carnival game (“don’t break the skin/leak the soup”).  These guys were so lacking in soup that you could pretty much throw them around like softballs without worrying about leakage.

"shu mai" at Din Tai Fong

We tried a lot of other dishes at Din Tai Fung, and unsurprisingly, most of them were comprised of the same ingredients that go into XLB.  The shu mai, for example, even looked like XLB, but were topped with prawns.  Efficiency at work.  But it’s not shu mai.  Get the chicken soup, though.  It’s amazingly rich and flavorful.

While the Din Tai Fung XLB disappointed because of their lack of soupiness, they were still tastier than anything I’ve found in London.  (Leong’s XLB used to be better when they first opened, but lately it just barely satisfies a craving).  And at 190 NT ($6 or £4) for a basket of ten “regular” pork-only xiao long bao, Din Tai Fung won’t break the bank.  I’d say make the pilgrimage the next time you’re in Taipei, but in my opinion, the better XLB experience is to be had at nearby Kao Chi, which we visited the next day mostly because we were doing some shopping in the area (the housewares department at Sogo Fuxing branch is unbeatable if you’re looking for high-quality, attractive rice bowls).

Credit to A Hungry Girl’s Guide to Taipei, which was handily organized by MRT station so that once I knew we were headed to Sogo, I could quickly scan for nearby dining options.  (Something I should consider doing on my own blog except for the admin hassle of re-doing the archived posts).

xiao long bao at Kao Chi, 180 NT ($6 or £4) for pork-only

Kao Chi was not only calmer and more upscale looking than Din Tai Fung, but also its XLB were, happily, soupier and better seasoned (i.e., I didn’t need to rely on soy sauce and vinegar).  The skins weren’t quite as translucent as those at DTF, but they were still thin and delicate, and I’ll trade a slightly thicker skin for more seasoned soup broth any day.

So go to Din Tai Fung to say you’ve been there, but don’t forget to drop by Kao Chi for a better dining experience, both in terms of food and atmosphere.

Din Tai Fung, 194, Xin Yi Road Sec. 2 (cross street:  Yong Kang Street), 10651 Taipei, Taiwan; +886 (0)2 2321 8928; closest MRT station:  Daan Station (brown line).

Kao Chi, 152, FùXìng South Road Sec. 1, Taipei, Taiwan; +886 (0)2-2341-9984; closest MRT station:  ZhongXiao FuXing (blue and brown lines)

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Keelung, Chinatown, Soho

Keelung, Chinatown, Soho

These days, Chinatown seems to be divided between two major players – the Bar Shu people and the Leong’s Legend people. Both restaurants have been building on the success of their initial ventures and expanding in the neighborhood. Presumably there’s a rivalry in there somewhere, and if so, I side with the Leong’s contingent (having felt that Bar Shu’s food was very mediocre and expensive and that in contrast, LL’s serves reliably-good dim sum at very good prices).

In light of my LL fan status, it should be no surprise that a few weeks ago, despite several highly-negative reviews (see e.g., Jay Rayner’s Guardian review here and Charmaine Mok’s TimeOut review here), I had dinner at Keelung, the latest offering by the Leong’s gang.

I’ve been to Taipei six or seven times, and several of those visits were two- or three-months long. While there are certain dishes I remember eating a lot of (and loving) in Taiwan — for example, pan-fried baozi at the Shilin nightmarket, oyster omelets, xiao long bao, beef noodle soup, and a fajita-type thing called ren bien — if you asked me what characterizes Taiwanese food, I’d have no good answer. I’ve always thought of Taiwan as the culinary melting pot for Chinese food. The place to get great versions of food that originated in the varied regions of mainland China.

Which is all to say that I didn’t go to Keelung expecting to eat some definitive list of Taiwanese classics, notwithstanding Keelung’s description of itself as a “Taiwanese restaurant.”

Jon and I started with one of our LL favorites, the crab xiao long bao. They were fine, but not as great as I’ve had them at LL’s on weekend dim sum outings. Perhaps they’d been sitting around too long before being steamed. (That said, I feel obliged to note here that Jay Rayner’s dismissing xiao long bao, generally, on the basis of having to eat them in one go is silly. Any xiao long bao lover knows that the trick is to use your chopsticks to lever the dumplings into your soup spoon and take small bites, letting the steam out while collecting the soup in your spoon).

chili prawns at Keelung

chili garlic prawns at Keelung

But things picked up with the seafood dishes we ordered. I liked that Keelung was generous with the chilies, generally, and the chili garlic prawns we tried were wonderfully tender-yet-firm and packed with flavor. It was a simple dish using large, sweet-tasting prawns. Perfect with plain white rice.

crispy pomfret at Keelung

crispy pomfret at Keelung

From the many-fish-served-many-ways matrix, we chose a pomfret and asked for it to be served crispy. And it was good stuff. Lots of firm white meat on the pomfret, lightly-battered skin, and lots of chili and scallions to lighten up the soy-sugar-based sauce. No gloppiness in sight.

pork belly in steamed bun at Keelung

pork belly in steamed bun at Keelung

The pork belly served in a steamed bun was a monster and really should have come sliced thin to avoid the meat tasting relatively dry. Sliced thin, I’m convinced the fat-t0-meet ratio would taste better, even if the actual ratio stayed the same. Maybe next time I’ll slice it thin myself, because the dish did offer well-flavored pork belly, which can’t find a better partner than the plain steamed man tou accompanying it.

choi sum

choi sum

Our biggest disappointment of the evening was a side of choi sum we ordered in a misguided attempt to be healthy. The choi sum was sadly flavorless despite the chilies and preserved veg it was served with. Then again, it’s a steamed vegetable. How exciting could it have gotten, really?

Service was attentive; the decor was surprisingly nice for Chinatown. And unlike other reviewers, I didn’t mind the classic rock soundtrack or memorabilia on the walls. In a way, it’s nice to visit a Chinese restaurant that doesn’t feel obliged to play pentatonic everything in the background.

Tab for two people, including a few beers, totaled £45. It wasn’t the best Chinese food of my life, but it was far from the worst. So I’ll definitely be returning to Keelung to try its other seafood dishes. Keelung seems an ideal place to go for reasonably-priced, good Chinese food served in a comfortable, feel-free-to-linger space.

Keelung, 6 Lisle St, WC2H 7BG, 020 7734 8128; closest Tube station: Leicester Square.
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Edwardian pie-and-mash shop interior of Shanghai restaurant in Dalston

Edwardian pie-and-mash shop interior of Shanghai restaurant in Dalston

A few weeks ago, on our way to Mangal Ocakbasi to pig out on tasty grilled meats, Jon and I once again passed Shanghai Restaurant on Kingsland Rd.

Two things have always made us curious about Shanghai: (1) we wondered if it served good xiao long bao (for which we will travel far and wide); and (2) the interior is gorgeous – colored-glass dome skylights, intricate tilework, marble-topped bar and dark wood booths.

So last weekend, on our way to check out Victoria Park (it’s truly amazing how you can live in London for years and still not have seen everything), we decided to try the dim sum at Shanghai.

There were lots of Chinese families in the back dining room (which is run-down-looking and furnished with the large round tables you normally see in Chinese restaurants), and lots of hipster (non-Chinese) guys hanging out along the bar, waiting for their takeaway. An interesting mix.

As we tend to do at dim sum, Jon and I ordered up a storm. The best of the dim sum was the luo bo gao (radish cake), which isn’t saying much given how simple it is to make, but at least it was served fresh from the pan, crispy on the outside and silky-smooth on the inside, with bits of shredded radish in there.

In contrast, all the prawn dishes (har gau, cheung fun) were packed with prawns, but sadly, the prawns didn’t taste like anything. Where I expected sweet, firm prawn flavor, I found only chewy blankness. Not good. Taro and yam croquettes were served lukewarm (a no-no when we’re talking about fried foods, wouldn’t you say?); black bean spare ribs were all fat and no kick; and shu mai were also all-fat-no-meat.

disappointing xiao long bao at Shanghai restaurant

disappointing xiao long bao at Shanghai restaurant

The worst was the xiao long bao. I mean, the place is called Shanghai, home of the xiao long bao! And *the above* is the best they could do? I could look past their shriveled ugliness if they were juicy-soupy on the inside, but alas, no soup to be found. The minced-pork-shitake-mushroom filling would’ve made a really excellent wonton, but it made for a rather poor xiao long bao. Contrast the photo above with the beauties here at Leong’s Legend, and you see how far off Shanghai was.

Based only on dim sum, Shanghai isn’t worth a re-visit. But we did order one item off the “regular food” menu, a rice dish served with pork and preserved fish, and it turned out to be quite good. Simple, hot and filling, and less than £5 – check it out:

pork and preserved fish, served with white rice

pork and preserved fish, served with white rice

The salty-meatiness of the pork and the preserved fish was perfect with fragrant white rice. And I always love a bit of scallion to lighten things up.

So because the front dining room is so pretty and atmospheric, the service so efficient and sweet, and this one rice dish so simple and good, I might go back to Shanghai the next time Dalston is on my way somewhere (rare). But I definitely won’t go back for the dim sum.

I normally don’t bother trashing on small, “unknown” places (since really, it’s hard enough running a mom-and-pop business without someone on the Internet giving you grief), but as I googled around for info on the restaurant to write this post, I saw that Shanghai seems to have serious financial backers as well as a loyal following (just look it up on Qype, TrustedPlaces, etc.). So they’re not the little ol’ underdog I thought they were, and therefore (I think), fair game.

Most dim sum dishes were £3-£4, so our (enormous) meal for two totaled £30.

Shanghai, 41 Kingsland High Street, E8 2JS; 0207 254 9322; closest station: Kingsland overground (or a 15-minute bus ride from Highbury & Islington tube station).
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Leong's Legend, 4 Macclesfield Street, W1D 6AX

Leong's Legend, 4 Macclesfield Street, W1D 6AX

If I were a fan of bumper stickers (and if I had a car – and a valid driver’s license), I’d get one that reads: “I brake for xiao long bao.”

Two weeks ago, Tasty Treats in her alter ego form, TimeOut London restaurant reviewer, highlighted Leong’s Legend in Chinatown as a place that served not only Taiwanese food, but also xiao long bao (a Shanghai specialty). So, it was inevitable that I’d try it out asap. And I liked Leong’s so much the first time, I went back again a few days later with friends in order to maximize sampling of dishes.

crab xiao long bao (soup dumplings) at Leong's Legend

crab xiao long bao (soup dumplings) at Leong's Legend

First, let’s talk about the fragrant, soupy crab xiao long bao. The skin’s good – thin and almost translucent, but still firm enough to hold all that soup in while you tweezer the dumpling into your soup spoon. The filling is also good – as good as it gets in London, anyway (still a little bit too light and fluffy, like all xiao long bao I’ve tried in London). Lots of hot, delicious soup. Key. And you get eight for £6. A steal. Cheaper even than at Pearl Liang.

Taiwanese beef noodle soup at Leong's Legend

Taiwanese beef noodle soup at Leong's Legend

Now, even though I’ve been to Taiwan six or seven times, I couldn’t tell you what makes Taiwanese food distinct from other types of Chinese food. But one thing that’s hugely popular in Taiwan is beef noodle soup (nio ro mien). And the version at Leong’s Legend is pretty tasty. You get a massive bowl of fragrant, slightly-spicy beef broth and tons of fatty, tender beef for £4.50. Much better than the over-tendoned small portions sold at Cha Cha Moon. I’m almost looking forward to the dark, rainy days of winter, just so I can run over to Leong’s and warm myself up with their nio ro mien.

Chili garlic crab at Leong's Legend

Chili garlic crab at Leong's Legend

The impressive-looking whole chili crab for £11 deserves a shout out for being quite possibly the best deal in London. Salty, garlicky and spicy on the outside, moist and sweet on the inside, the crab is served in the shell, but it’s already cracked so you don’t need to fuss to get at the crab meat.

Dry-fried beans at Leongs Legend

Dry-fried beans at Leong's Legend

Many of the dishes at Leong’s are meat and seafood, with just a few veg options.  So perhaps not so ideal for vegetarians unless they eat seafood.  Dry-fried beans have proven the best of the veg. The garlic shoots on the menu were tough and fibrous, so I’d avoid those.  And I’m going to go against the tide and say I didn’t enjoy the oyster omelet (owa jiang). Too wet and liquidy for me.

Service has been speedy both times I visited, so that kind of makes up for the no-reservations, queue-up-at-the-door policy.

The food and prices are great, whether you get dim sum at lunch or “regular” dishes at any time of day. I’m sure I’ll be visiting more often going forward.

Leong’s Legend, 4 Macclesfield St, W1D 6AX; 020 7287 0288; closest tube: Leicester Square.
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crispy Beijing-style pork dumplings

Things I hate about London Chinatown:

1. The ten thousand bajillion tourists there. What are they there to see, exactly? Have they never seen Chinese people? Seriously, I hate going to Chinatown and feeling like I’m part of the scenery.

2. The many crappy and overpriced restaurants that cater to Point Number One above.Things I love about London Chinatown (and that outweigh the things I hate):1. Chinese groceries in Chinatown are awesome. Loon FungLoon Fung supermarket Supermarket, the biggest one, sells 22-pound bags of Jasmine rice, ten thousand brands of soy sauce, super-convenient frozen dumplings (the “Beijing Brand” pork-and-chive deserves special mention) and stocks “Great Wall of China” wines (I’ll let you know if I ever screw up the courage to give it a go).

On top of all this greatness, you can also pick up Skippy peanut butter at about half the price of the going rate at an “American” section in mainstream London supermarkets. Chinese wine and Skippy peanut butter – clearly, Loon Fong is my kind of place.

2. The bah tzang bah tzang or zongzi for sale on Gerrard Streetlady who shows up in the evenings and parks herself and her homemade wares on the doorstep of Ladbrokes (a betting chain) next door to the Loon Fung.

What’s a bah tsang? See photo at left. It’s a portable meal. Sticky rice and a variety of fillings (fillings depend on what part of China you’re in or from) get wrapped up in bamboo leaf, tied with a string, and steamed. When you want to eat it, you can eat it cold or re-steam the whole thing and voila, you have a hot, tasty meal that doesn’t even require a plate or fork. It’s a Chinese tamale, really.

The bah tzang lady sells fresh, simple, homemade ones filled with pork and egg for £1 each, and sometimes she’s accompanied by a woman who sells homemade sesame candy that looks tasty, too.

3. Chinese Experience (118 Shaftesbury Avenue) restaurant for unusual, creative, fresh dim sum and Royal Dragon (30 Gerrard Street) restaurant for traditional, but also fresh dim sum. Alas, be warned that the vast majority of dim sum places in London don’t do the carts. It’s all about ticking boxes off on a form listing all your dim sum options.

Our favorites at the Chinese Experience restaurant include the crispy turnip cake served Singapore-style and the crispy Beijing-style dumplings with sesame (see photo at the top of this post). Shanghai soup dumpling at Chinese ExperienceThat said, the biggest draw of Chinese Experience are the decent xiao long bao, the Shanghai soup dumplings (see photo at right) that I’ve craved since the days when I could drop by Joe’s Shanghai at my leisure.

The Chinese Experience version is good because the skin is thin but also sturdy so the soup doesn’t leak out, and the pork filling and soup are flavorful, though it lacks the zing that thrilled at Joe’s or Din Tai Fung in Taipei.

Still, It’s the best in quality/price we’ve found so far in London. (The nearby ECapital Shanghai restaurant also serves them, but they’re pricier and have a subpar thick skin; Royal China Club and Yauatcha serve good ones, but they’re expensive enough that you don’t want to pop by too often).

And that’s my two cents’ on London Chinatown. If anyone reading this post wants to recommend additional sources of xiao long bao in London, I’m all ears!
Chinese Experience on Urbanspoon

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